From Pale to Tan​—Changing Concepts About Skin

WHAT is your symbol of radiant health? Is it a sleek, tanned body? For many Europeans and North Americans, it is. But such has not always been the case. Years ago, European women wore wide-brimmed hats and carried parasols to protect themselves from the sun. Pale skin was considered a sign of aristocracy. A suntan was the mark of a manual laborer.

In more remote times, products now known to be poisonous were used to whiten the skin. For example, as early as 400 B.C.E., the Greeks whitened their skin with a face powder of lead carbonate. Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Roman Emperor Nero, used this toxic substance to whiten her face. In the 16th century, arsenic was used by some Italian women to give their faces a translucent appearance. But ever since French clothing designer Coco Chanel popularized the suntan in the early 1920’s, a tanned body has been considered fashionable by many. People spend hours sunbathing.

However, not all lovers of the outdoors desire a darker-colored skin. Sunbathing is not part of their culture. They enjoy the relaxing effects of the warm sun and gentle breezes that a day outdoors brings them rather than the tanning effect of the sun’s rays. Why does their skin need protection from the sun?

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Beach scene from the early 20th century

[Credit Line]

Brown Brothers